Interviews

Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

 

 

Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line. It is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.

Written over the course of thirty years by a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, Matterhorn is a visceral and spellbinding novel about what it is like to be a young man at war: the anxiety and anticipation before the first encounter with the enemy; the fear and exhilaration and brutality of fighting; the tedium and relief of downtime; and, finally, the bonds between men, and the agony and despair of losing one’s friends. It is an unforgettable novel that transforms the tragedy of Vietnam into a powerful and universal story of courage, camaraderie, and sacrifice: a parable not only of the war in Vietnam but of all war, and a testament to the redemptive power of literature.#

In an April, 2011 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Marlantes discusses his book, his experience writing it, and his life of recovery following his return home.

 

 

 

 

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Karl Marlantes, receiving the Bronze Star

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The rest of the day Mellas raged inwardly against the colonel. This gave him energy to keep moving, keep checking on the platoon, keep the kids moving. But just below the grim tranquility he had learned to display, he cursed with boiling intensity the ambitious men who used him and his troops to further their careers. He cursed the air wing for not trying to get choppers in through the clouds. He cursed the diplomats arguing about round and square tables. He cursed the South Vietnamese making money off the black market. He cursed the people back home gorging themselves in front of their televisions. Then he cursed God. Then there was no one else to blame and he cursed himself for thinking God would give a shit.

– An excerpt from Matterhorn

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Somebody to Love, by the Jefferson Airplane

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JJM   I’ve spent a lot of time on the Internet reading comments from readers about your book, and many of them were from Vietnam War veterans themselves. In fact, the page for Matterhorn book reviews on Amazon is, I think, an amazing sociological forum that I encourage everybody to visit. In addition to the book reviews, people recount their own experiences in Vietnam and on the home front as well.

KM  Yes, I’m a bit of a coward and somewhat introverted, and if somebody gives me a bad review, I get wounded. So my wife says, “I’ll read them first and if there’s a five star review, I’ll read it to you and if it’s a bad one, I won’t even tell you about it.”

JJM  I understand your concern, but you don’t have much to worry about there. A common theme among the veterans is that they praise the novel’s authenticity, and ordinary citizens express gratitude that you wrote it. For example, one non-veteran wrote, “Thank you Mr. Marlantes for such a great story. My deepest respect to all of those who fought in the Vietnam War.” You must be incredibly proud of your achievement.

KM   Yes, I do feel good. Veterans tell me that I “nailed it,” and that is very important to me – it is worth 100 good reviews. It’s important because to a large extent I was just trying to tell our story. I mean, we were so badly received when we came home from Vietnam – we couldn’t even get a date north of the Mason-Dixon line. I was stationed in Washington, D.C. after I came back, and there were signs in restaurants that said “No servicemen allowed” – and this was in our nation’s capital!

I am always careful to say that the bad things that happened to veterans were because of the radical peace protestors – who were a minority, but they were a significant minority. Most of them were honorable and not all of them spit on the troops and blamed them for the war, but I did experience a lot of hatred. One image that has stuck in my mind occurred after having been back from the war for a couple of months, and I had to take some papers to the White House while dressed in full uniform. Across the street a group of young students, probably about my age, were waving Vietcong flags while shouting obscenities and flipping the bird at me. I remember being stunned! I wasn’t angry, but I was hurt, and I remember thinking to myself, “You don’t know who I am. You’re just doing this to a uniform, and because I’m in a uniform, I can’t behave badly and go over there and shout back at you.” They were just so…hateful. I thought if I could walk across the street and explain to them that the people they called “baby killers” are three years younger than they were, and it’s only because they got to go to college that prevented them from serving in Vietnam. I wanted to explain who we were. So, in a way, Matterhorn was a way to tell a story of what it was like to be 19-years-old during that time period, growing up in a war and dealing with all the things we had to. This was an experience that a lot of kids went through.

JJM  You had dual traumas – fighting in the war, and coming home to that kind of reception…

KM   It’s even got a name; the “Safe Harbor Trauma.” You think that you are finally safe because you are coming home to the loving reception of your grateful country, but, it wasn’t the case. It was so bizarre. They told us things like we should take our uniforms off so that we wouldn’t disturb people in the airports. If we flew standby – because it was half price if we were in uniform – they said we should fly between midnight and three-o’clock in the morning so there wouldn’t be any trouble. My reaction was, “Wow! This is what we came home to?” Today I see beer commercials where people are clapping as the troops get off the airplane, and see how drastically things have changed.

JJM  I lived in the San Francisco Bay area for much of the war in Vietnam – specifically Berkeley, which was the epicenter of war protest – and I was one of those guys with an attitude about the military. The soldiers were a symbol of some of the bad choices our country made, and targets of a very unpopular war.

KM  Yes, we were easy targets and most of the protesters were young. When you’re young, you’re black-and-white and you’re stupid. I look back on it now and see that America was just going crazy at the time, and the way we were treated upon our return was a part of the craziness.

JJM It’s one thing to write a war novel based on your experience. It’s another to write what many are calling a “literary classic.” What writing experience did you have prior to writing this book?

KM   I started writing when I was about eight or nine. I had a little diary that I kept and I would write my dreams down in it. I eventually burned it. A little bit later, my cousin and I decided to write a novel about two nine-year-old boys saving the world from space invaders. It was about 12 pages long and has since been long lost. Then, while in high school in Seaside, Oregon, I was reading Kierkegaard and I wrote a black mass from the viewpoint of being thankful for all of the bad things that God has done to the world. My father found it and he was outraged –it was my first major lecture on blasphemy. So, he made me go out in the backyard and burn it.

JJM  Did you feel like you had to hide your writing after that?

KM  No, not really – I put that in perspective. I mean, it’s my dad. But when I was at Yale, I won the Tunic Prize for Literature, which is a short story contest. So, by the time I got back from Oxford, I figured I could write the “Great American Novel” about the war. So, I’ve always been a writer…

JJM  Did you read a war novel before going to Vietnam?

KM   Oh, yes. I read The Naked and the Dead and The Thin Red Line before I went to Vietnam. When I found out I was going to Vietnam, I started getting into World War I poets – in fact, a girlfriend of mine gave me a book of Wilfred Owen poems that I carried with me for a long time in Vietnam. These World War I poets nailed the mechanized horror of modern war.

If you read Horatio Hornblower you learned that if you were fast on your feet, smart, good with a sword, and were daring and dashing, you could shave the odds – all of these things would help you live. But by the time World War I came around, I don’t care if you went to Oxford and were the fastest runner in the world, if the shell hit your hole, you were dead – there was nothing you could do about it. Death became much more random and you were so much more helpless than back in the day of pre-American Civil War. So, these poets were important to me.

I tried reading Tolstoy when I was high school, but I was too young to appreciate him. When I came back from Vietnam, I couldn’t put him down. I think I stayed up all night and day for three days reading War and Peace and I was like, “Oh my God!” In my opinion he is still the “great novelist.” He handles characters so well. The war novel is complex, and one of the major issues I faced artistically was how to show how the protagonist is completely in over his head and confused, and because there are so many new faces and names in the book, how do I get all of this across without making the reader feel so confused that they throw the book down? So, when I started writing my book, I went back and I reread Tolstoy and saw how something like stuttering could identify a character. So, in my book the character Jacobs stutters because it is a way to identify him, and you could remember other characters if one of them has a tic, or if someone has an odd way of looking at you while he’s talking to you.

JJM  So, you started writing this book over 30 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2010 before it was published. When did publishers begin taking your manuscript seriously?

KM  They never did. It’s really interesting, but a mistake was made in the telling of this story, and it made its way to the Internet, and you can’t ever correct that. When I first came back from Vietnam in the summer of 1971, I was at Oxford, and during an eight week summer vacation, I maniacally typed out 1,784 pages on an Adler typewriter. I remember telling somebody that it was “probably about 1,600 American pages,” and while I thought I was writing a novel, I now understand that it was actually a first-person psycho-dump, and a month after writing it I re-read it and I was not happy – I devoted four pages, for example, to the fact that I had wet socks and couldn’t get dry ones. I realize now, of course, that what I was doing is what is now called “journaling,” but the important thing is that I just had to get it all out.

So, when I told somebody that, the rumor became that Matterhorn‘s first draft was 1,600 pages long. There was a lot having to do with Matterhorn within those 1,600 pages because many of the things that I was writing about happened to me, so this was about me getting stuff out of my system.

Then, in about 1975, I started getting serious, and began reading books about things like how to structure a plot, and how to develop character arcs. I started reading those things and realizing that there is actually craft to this art form! So, the first draft came out in 1977, although it was clearly still too big – it was about 1,100 or 1,200 pages, double-spaced and typewritten. I started writing query letters and, at best, I’d get somebody to say, “Send me a page or two,” but no one picked up the manuscript. I was told that I was an unknown writer, that it’s a big book, and that since it’s about Vietnam, which no one wanted to read anything about, there was no market for the book. And these are things I heard from those who were kind enough to send me some sort of answer to my query letters. So, I gave up. By that time, I had a couple kids, and Mario Puzo had it right when he said that you can’t make a living writing fiction in America, but you can make a killing.

JJM Oh, that’s right…

KM  So I made another run at it in the 1980’s, and those who answered my query letters would tell me that there wasn’t a market for it, that Hollywood has done Vietnam, and it’s over. There was Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, and the market is done. In the mid-1990’s, I got people writing me back and they would make suggestions like, maybe they could do something with your book, but, since the Gulf War had just happened, could I just change it to the Gulf War? Now I tell people, a little tongue-in-cheek, that I’m so thankful that by that time Microsoft had come up with search and replace because I could just put replace the word “jungle” with “desert!” And, since I had a mountain in my story, maybe I could make the story be about a mountain in Afghanistan and we could sell that.

Literature is a difficult marriage between art and commerce because you don’t get your art our there unless people who are in business can make a profit on it. I don’t complain about that, that’s just the way it is. Even Michelangelo had to find patrons. It has always been this way, and it is certainly that way in this country with the New York publishers.

JJM  Well, it could also be that the pain of Vietnam has affected us for so long that it took until recently before we were ready for a book like Matterhorn.

KM  Well, yes. I like to say that it’s like having the alcoholic father. It’s the family secret. Everybody tiptoes around it. We all know Dad drinks too much, but nobody talks about it, and Vietnam has been like that for decades. It’s influenced everything in our foreign policy, our political parties, and even who’s in our political parties. It has been an amazing factor in our current situation in Afghanistan, which is so eerily parallel to Vietnam that it blows my mind.

JJM When people described Vietnam when the war was being fought, the word frequently used was “quagmire,” and Matterhorn – the mountain where much of your book takes place – is a great symbol of a quagmire…

KM   Yes, this mountain was a conscious symbol of our “doing it to ourselves.” I mean, in Vietnam, we “did it to ourselves.” So, in Matterhorn we build it, we leave it, we go back after it at great costs, and then we leave it. It is the central symbol of the novel.

JJM  In The Good War, Studs Terkel’s great oral history of World War II, he quoted a veteran of that war by the name of John Charte, who said this about Vietnam: “I feel sorry for the kids in Vietnam. They couldn’t have figured out what it was they were fighting for. I knew why I was there. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared. I don’t know what I would have done in Vietnam. I mean, I’m a botch as a killer, as a soldier, but as an American, I felt very strongly I did not want to be alive to see the Japanese impose surrender terms.” So, World War II had a goal – getting to Tokyo…

KM   Absolutely. Vietnam was the first war that I know of where there was no clear cut way of knowing whether we were winning or not. During World War II, there was Guadalcanal – got it; Tarawa –got it; the Mariana’s – yep, we’re getting closer. Then the Philippines, Okinawa, and Tokyo’s next! You could measure progress, and on the European front as well.

The other thing is that I talked to my dad and my uncles and their friends who were in the second world war, and when they were in combat, they said that beating fascism for democracy was not a motivating factor – what motivated them was saving their friends and saving their own skins, and in getting the job done. This is like it always is in war. But, the difference is that there were actually good guys and bad guys. Today, I think you can stand up and say that the world is better off because fascism and Japan were defeated. We didn’t want to have the Japanese impose surrender terms on us. So, when they came home and had to deal with the fact that they had killed 19-year old Germans who were just fighting for the Fatherland – they weren’t Nazi’s – they could at least say that it was done in good cause, and that we contributed to the good. In Vietnam, you couldn’t. I wrote a scene in my book where one of the characters gets angry at the lieutenant and starts crying out “Where’s the gold? Where’s the gold? If someone would just tell me there’s gold or oil or something here…If I knew why I was here I would feel better.”

JJM  Vietnam was a war of body counts, and interpretation of the war’s success and failure on the battlefield was really determined by the numbers of Vietcong killed each day…

KM  Yes, and there were other metrics as well, like the number of villages pacified, but how in the hell would they ever know what a pacified village was, because it could be that everyone was smiling and happily selling trinkets to the American soldiers in the daytime and then they go out at night and set up land mines. I make fun of this in the novel, when Mellas has to call in a body count and by the time it gets to Saigon, it is considered a major victory.

Body count became a measure that people actually got promoted on because it was the only way that you could determine whether or not we were making progress. If you took the hill in World War II, it was great because they were one step closer to their goal…

JJM  And it wasn’t surrendered back to the enemy after it was taken…

KM  Absolutely, you don’t leave it. Try and tell troops that we just had 19 dead taking this hill – I had that happen to me, and it happened to so many Vietnam veterans. I’ve had them come up to me in book readings and say, “I know what hill that is. That’s 881 South,” or “That’s hill 55,” and I’ll tell them that it wasn’t, but, while I made the hill up, it was any hill you fought on.

The other thing about body count that I think is so bad is that it is immoral. I mean, the military is not there to kill people. The military is there to use violence and the threat of violence to get another side to stop killing your people. While you have to kill them to get them to stop, but, as soon as they stop, you’re done. You’re not there to kill people. You’re there to get the killing stopped if you’re doing it from the right perspective. So, it’s immoral. The other one is that American people only care about one side of that ratio. You could say we killed 600 NVA today and lost four Americans. but the headline will read, Four Americans Killed in Vietnam.” So, it’s a stupid political thing as well.